A Brief Look at the Book of Hours

The Book of Hours was a popular medieval manuscript from the late 13th century to the mid 16th century. Private worship aids, these manuscripts contained prayers and devotional texts. The Book of Hours was a simplified version of the Office of Divine with set hours of required prayers and recitation of Psalms throughout the day. It was developed for lay religious as a way of following some aspects of religious life.

King's 9 f. 90v All Saints, Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, c. 1500, British Library

King’s 9 f. 90v All Saints, Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, c. 1500, British Library

The Book of Hours is the most commonly surviving form of medieval manuscripts. Customized for the purchaser, each Book of Hours was individual. Books of Hours ranged from very minimally illustrated manuscripts to lavishly ornate books created for wealthy patrons.

The popularity of these books declined in the mid century due to liturgical changes after the Council of Trent and the lessening of the requirement by Pope Pius V for clergy to pray the Office of the Blessed Virgin (Gwara, 2017).

Rites

While Western Europe universally practiced Roman Catholicism as its expression of Christianity during the Middle Ages, the style of worship differed from region to region. The ordering of worship or rites was known by the name of the geographic region that developed it. While the fundamentality of the Roman Catholic faith was observed, local areas introduced different prayers and ceremonies specific to that geographic region. These differences in liturgical observances were also reflected in the Book of Hours.

Use of Rome

The Use of Rome or Roman Rites was, and is, the most widely spread use of liturgical rites. Developed for use by the Bishop of Rome, it was adopted by many bishops in other dioceses across western Europe because those clergy felt that it was superior since it was the rite used by Popes (Fortescue, 1912).

Book of Hours. Use of Rome. France (Tours?) or Flanders, ca. 1525, Southern Methodist University.

Book of Hours. Use of Rome. France (Tours?) or Flanders, ca. 1525, Southern Methodist University.

Use of Sarum

This was the most popular rite in England during the Middle Ages and was developed by St. Osmund, Bishop of Sarum or Salisbury. Before being ordained a bishop, Osmund was a Norman nobleman and his ordering of the rites incorporated some of the Norman liturgical traditions (Bergh, 1912).

Book of Hours. Use of Sarum. Flanders or Northern France (St. Omer?), ca. 1325–1330, Southern Methodist University.

Book of Hours. Use of Sarum. Flanders or Northern France (St. Omer?), ca. 1325–1330, Southern Methodist University.

Use of Paris

The use of Paris was a rite that involved a distinctly French prayer cycle which emerged in the 1350s in Paris: The Fifteen Joys of the Virgin, a cycle of seven penitential prayers some times called the Seven Requests, and a short prayer to the True Cross (Léglu, n.d.)

Book of Hours, use of Paris. ca. 1475-1499, Scriptorim.dk

Book of Hours, use of Paris. ca. 1475-1499, Scriptorim.dk

A Look Inside the Book of Hours

Each Book of Hours was sectioned. The beginning of the book contained the liturgical calendars listing feast days, solemnities, and other notable liturgical events. The Book of Hours was customized by the patron and could contain between five to 25 elements in addition to the Book of the Virgin (Stein, 2017).

Since each Book of Hours was custom made, the calendar would contain local feast days of importance to the owner of the manuscript. Important liturgical days were written in red which gave rise to the term “red letter days” to denote important holidays or events, even secular ones (Gwara, 2017).

This Sarum calendar from a northern French Book of Hours contains the feasts of the Norman saints Michel and Eloi.
Sarum Calendar from a Book of Hours, Bruges, c. 1410, Add MS 82946, f. 8v, British Library.

Sarum Calendar from a Book of Hours, Bruges,
c. 1410, Add MS 82946, f. 8v, British Library.

Influence of the Stars

Astrological diagram, York, c. 1420, Add MS 82946, f. 30v, British Library

Astrological diagram, York, c. 1420, Add MS 82946, f. 30v, British Library

Since the medieval mind believed in the influence of astronomical events on the human condition (BBCs, 2010), the Book of Hours might also contain astrological calendars and a diagram of the Zodiac Man which showed which signs afflicted which parts of the body.

Diagram of Zodiac man, York, c. 1420, Add MS 82946, f. 31r, British Library

Diagram of Zodiac man, York, c. 1420, Add MS 82946, f. 31r, British Library

Depending on the rite used, the order of the rest of the Book of Hours might differ. The central liturgical text for the Book of Hours was the Hours of the Virgin. This was a set of eight prayers spread out at regular times during a 24-hour period. Other hours included in the book might be the Hours of the Holy Cross and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. Gospel lessons would also be a part of this manuscript. Penitential Psalms and devotional prayers to Saints called suffrages would also be included. The latter part of the Book of Hours would contain the Office of the Dead which contained prayers for the repose of the soul for those that had recently died.

Erased prayer to St Thomas Becket and off-set from a pilgrim badge, Egerton MS 3883, f. 142v, British Library.

Erased prayer to St Thomas Becket and off-set from a pilgrim badge, Egerton MS 3883, f. 142v, British Library.

References

Bergh, F.T. (1912). Sarum Rite. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 5, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13479a.htm

Fortescue, A. (1912). The Roman Rite. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 5, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13155a.htm

Gwara, S. (2017, February).  Book of hours (use of Rome) (MS 963). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Retrieved from http://scua.library.umass.edu/umarmot/book-of-hours-use-of-rome/

Léglu, C.  (n.d.).  The University of Reading’s Book of Hours.  Retrieved from https://www.reading.ac.uk/GCMS/Book-of-Hours/gcms-resources-book-of-hours-home.aspx

Stein, W. (2017, June).  The Book of Hours: A medieval bestseller.  Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hour/hd_hour.htm

Westwell, C.  (2014, August 21).  Three more Book of Hours [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/08/three-more-books-of-hours.html

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